Let’s be real: Traveling during the holiday season is chaotic AF. As someone who went to college out of state, I will never forget riding the jam-packed Amtrak train home right before Thanksgiving or waiting in long security lines during my winter break in December. This time of year is notoriously busy, as everyone is making their way home for the holidays or heading out on winter vacays. It can be quite stressful, especially if you’re not a seasoned traveler, but going in prepared can make your journey as smooth and stress-free as possible. Take a deep breath in and read on for a few holiday travel tips for the busiest time of year.
1. Sign up for TSA PreCheck
Security lines at airports have to be one of the main causes of anxiety for travelers, especially during the holidays. One way to help streamline this necessary part of airplane travel is by enrolling in TSA PreCheck. If you’re approved, you’ll enjoy perks like a dedicated (often shorter) airport security line and the ability to keep your shoes on and leave liquids and laptops in your carry-on bags, which can save time and hassle. The enrollment fee is $78, and membership lasts for five years (which comes out to a little less than $16 a year), so it’s well worth it if you travel regularly. The application process includes an in-person interview, so be sure to sign up soon so you’re set for holiday travel!
2. Travel during off-peak dates if possible
According to the TSA, the Sunday after Thanksgiving and the day before Christmas Eve are some of the busiest travel days of the year. If you’re open to traveling on the holiday itself or a few days beforehand, booking travel during off-peak times can help you beat the crowds (and potentially save some money on flights). For example, instead of flying out the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, opt to travel earlier in the week, then fly out on Black Friday to beat the weekend rush. Traveling on Christmas or New Year’s might not be your first choice, but you’ll likely see much smaller crowds than during the few days right after the holidays. If you do have to travel on a holiday, aim to head out early in the day for minimal crowds.
3. Leave gifts unwrapped or ship them instead
I personally love wrapping gifts that look straight off a Pinterest board, and I would be so bummed if all my work went to waste due to security at the airport. If you’re traveling with gifts in your carry-on, wait to wrap them until you get to your destination. While TSA does allow wrapped gifts through security, there’s a chance they may ask you to unwrap them if anything appears out of the ordinary, so save yourself some time and effort just in case. Other options? Pack them in your checked luggage or, better yet, ship them ahead of time. Not having to worry about traveling with gifts will leave more room for your essentials—and gifts you may be returning home with as well.
4. Make sure your car is running well
If you’re headed out on a road trip this season, give your car some love beforehand. Make sure all your lights are working, check your tire pressure, and get an oil change if you need one. While you’re at it, take a few steps to prepare for any potential winter weather. Consider installing new wiper blades so you’re prepared for rain or snow on the drive, and stash things like jumper cables, ice scrapers, extra blankets, and an emergency kit in the trunk just in case.
5. Have playlists and podcasts queued up and downloaded
Whether you’re driving or flying, music and podcasts are a must. There is no bigger letdown than settling in once you’ve reached cruising altitude and realizing you didn’t download anything ahead of time (speaking from experience!). Don’t waste phone data and be sure to download all your playlists and podcast episodes the night before so they’re ready to go when you’re on the road or in the air.
6. Be as prepared as possible
Holiday travel is bound to be stressful, so come prepared with everything you need to stay calm and comfortable. If you’re flying, download your airline’s app to your phone and opt in to text alerts so you don’t have to rely on announcements if a flight gets delayed or changed. Have extra phone chargers at the ready, and bring a water bottle so you can stay hydrated (ice is allowed through security if you want to keep water cold!). And no matter what form of transportation you’re using, pack snacks and wear an outfit you know you’ll be comfortable in.
If you’re easily overwhelmed by crowds or have flight anxiety, noise-canceling headphones are a lifesaver and worth every penny. The Superhuman app also has some amazing travel-themed meditations that can help keep you calm as well. Just be sure to download them ahead of time so you can listen to them whenever without relying on unreliable Wi-Fi or spotty service.
7. Don’t panic if your flight gets canceled
While a canceled flight is the worst-case scenario for many, knowing what to do if that does happen can help you keep calm in an especially stressful situation. First things first: Don’t panic. If your flight is canceled or majorly delayed, take a breath, get in the customer service line, call your airline while you’re waiting, and chat with whichever customer service representative you can get in touch with first. Rebook on the same airline if you can, but also be open to booking via a different airline if need be. And don’t be afraid to share competitors’ rates when chatting with customer service agents on the phone or in person.
It’s also important to know that when a flight gets canceled, you are legally entitled to a full refund, which includes all taxes and fees. The U.S. Department of Transportation also has a very handy airline customer service dashboard, which outlines what type of compensation you can expect if your flight is canceled or delayed, depending on which airline you’re flying. This includes things like hotel accommodations, meal vouchers, and transportation to and from the airport if an overnight stay is required.
8. Breathe, stay patient, and practice kindness
It’s almost inevitable that you’ll run into some bumps along the way in your holiday travels. Even a quick road trip or a short flight can be stress-inducing, and you can’t control things like the weather or what others around you are doing or feeling. Remember to stay patient and practice kindness to everyone you interact with, whether they’re fellow travelers, flight attendants, customer service agents, or others. Everyone wants to get where they’re headed as quickly and safely as possible. Regulate your nervous system by taking slow, deep breaths and be kind not only to others but to yourself as well.